Every evening this summer, from New Mexico to Montana, we've watched a blood-red sunset through a haze of woodsmoke. Since early June, the west has been on fire.
The National Interagency Fire Center reports that so far this year (and it's only mid-August), 7,037,373 acres or approx. 10,937 square miles have burned. All of the fires are on public land but many have spread to private holdings in Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, Montana, Arizona, Washington, Oregon and California and destroyed property and cost lives. To put the size of the fires in perspective, that's larger than New Jersey and roughly the entire size of Massachusetts. Across the West right now, according to the United States Forest Service, there are 160 new fires, eight new large fires, thirty-six uncontained fires, and ONE area command team committed to fight them.
This post is not a rant about fires and how all of them should be put out. There have always been fires. It's about how federal management (or, more truthfully, "mismanagement" or "lack of management") has created a situation that will result in more fires, more property destruction, and more loss of life.
Why? Because pine beetles have been allowed to kill 6 billion trees from New Mexico to British Columbia along the backbone of the Rocky Mountains. From the Canadian border to the Mexican border. Six. Billion. Trees. Imagine six billion dry matchsticks waiting for a spark.
In Wyoming, I've watched entire mountainsides turn from deep green to rust color in a few years. Not only is the forest itself a tinderbox, but because the trees are dead and not drinking water, that means a light rain that was once absorbed is now a flash-flood danger below.
The U.S. Forest Service has known about the problem since the 1990's. But rather than take action -- emergency spraying, culling, timbering, or ultra "multiple-use" methods of heading off the coming catastrophe -- there was typical bureaucratic inertia. For years. That's because the philosophy governing the federal agency has been "preservation" (resulting in fewer timber sales, closed roads, fewer grazing leases, buildup of fuel, etc.) -- as opposed to management of the resource. The lack of management has resulted in the loss of billions of board feet of lumber, healthy wildlife, the deprivation of livelihoods of thousands of people, and dying mountain communities -- at the very least.
I want to explode when I'm told I should recycle paper in order to "save trees" when our own government stands by and lets six billion of them die and go up in flames on our public lands and no one seems to know about it -- or care.
I'm not suggesting that the Feds could have prevented all of the acres from being infested. It was too big a job, and pine beetles are voracious. But let's do a thought experiment.
Imagine if those 10,000 square miles of mountains and timber were owned and managed not by nine-to-five bureaucrats with nothing personal at stake but by many private landowners or companies. Let's say the owners were capitalists who managed their property for the long-term in order to make a reasonable profit from lumber, recreation, hunting, fishing, mining, energy extraction, and tourism. The incentive to "save" the forests would result in a return on a capital investment and would benefit the stockholders who had risked their investment in the landholdings. Do you think those owners and managers would sit by idly for twenty years and let pine beetles slowly overtake every inch of their property while doing nothing until it all burned down in an uncontrollable inferno?
This is what I think about, as the blood-red sun sets on the western horizon -- which happens to be owned by the federal government as well.